Having recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks I was looking for more "science for laypeople" books. Deborah Blum won a Pulitzer Prize for science journalism and is a professor at the University of Wisconsin. One of her former students recommended The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, and I'd also heard from several mystery readers that it was a really fun book, if you don't mind a little chemistry with your drama.
Blum tells the true story of New York's first chief medical examiner, Charles Norris; his right-hand man Alexander Gettler; and their efforts to reform the way New York City officials investigated suspicious deaths and prosecuted suspected poisoners.
Did you know that in the early part of the 20th century it was extremely easy to get your hands on a variety of nasty substances (my favorite is something called Rough on Rats) and also really easy to get away with using said substances to murder someone? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was in its infancy. Autopsies were primitive. Gettler and Norris saw the need for greater regulation and better analysis, and they became crusaders for both.
This book is like a smorgasbord of information about poison and poisoners, and how Gettler and Norris went after both. It's got detailed descriptions of how Gettler minced up flesh from human cadavers and subjected the resulting mush to a battery of tests as he tried to figure out the best way to extract the toxins. Norris focused more on policy -- he hated Prohibition, for example, and assiduously tracked the sharp rise in deaths caused by the methyl alcohol in bootleg liquor.
I also liked Blum's vignettes about notorious poisoners such as Fanny Creighton, who managed to knock off several annoying family members with arsenic before she was finally caught and prosecuted. Blum's prose is lively, and she provides just the right mix of science and suspense to make this a great read.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.